Ari Neumann, Director of Policy Development and Applied Research,Â Rural Community Assistance Partnership
As the 2014 mid-term election nears, Congress has gradually checked off many of the big items on its to-do list. Congress will likely devote most of the rest of this legislative session to passing its annual budget and appropriations bills that fund the federal government. We expect that the spending bills will be wrapped up before Congress heads home for its annual August recess and the election season is in full swing. The budget outlook for rural programs is much the same as last year. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, major changes are unlikely to occur.
One of the big items that Congress recently finished is the reauthorization of the 5-year Farm Bill. It passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Obama on February 7. The total bill is complex and multi-faceted and is organized into 12 titles that each address one issue area. The one that most directly impacts RCAPâ€™s work is the Rural Development (RD) Title.
This Farm Billâ€™s RD Title included a few significant policy changes that will impact rural communities in mostly beneficial ways. It included:
- Instructions to USDA-RD to streamline the application process for communities applying for loans and grants
- A requirement that USDA-RD report to Congress regularly on the efficacy of the agencyâ€™s programs
- A pilot program to encourage local and regional planning
- $150 million in mandatory funding to address the backlog in water/wastewater applications
- And RCAPâ€™s top legislative priority, authorization for technical assistance for the Essential Community Facilities Program (CF).
The technical assistance authorization for CF is modeled after the successful water and wastewater technical assistance program that currently exists at RD. It sets aside a small percentage of the funds that are appropriated for the program to be used by non-profit entities to help communities adhere to the rules and requirements of the CF program. It helps ensure that projects go smoothly and protects federal investments by ensuring that communities are able to repay any loans they receive from RD. This type of assistance has long been requested by RD state offices, and RCAP looks forward to working with USDA-RD to implement this important policy change.
While the Farm Bill as a whole was not without controversy, the RD Title is a strong title for rural communities that will make many positive changes. We here at RCAP are looking forward to working with USDA to implement the new policies enacted in the bill and ensure that they work to improve the quality of life in rural America.